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By Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Administrative Rabbinic Coordinator
Q. Which kosher symbols are acceptable?
A. Any person – Jewish or non-Jewish – can claim that food is kosher and can create a logo to identify the food as such. Thus, the mere fact that there is a logo attesting to kashrus is meaningless. So, a first step in knowing which symbols are trustworthy is to find out if the person or organization that grants the certification is a Shomer Shabbos Jew. But that is clearly not enough.
Most people realize that to certify food as kosher requires familiarity with the relevant halachos, which includes significant parts of Yoreh Deah (tolaim, basar b’chalav, pas Yisroel, bishul Yisroel, gevinas Yisroel, chosamos, stam yayin, tevillas keilim, challah, mitzvos of Eretz Yisroel) and Orach Chaim (hechsher keilim, Shabbos, Pesach). Not only must the person have the “book knowledge”, but he must also know what the generally accepted practices are. For example, there are teshuvos that justify eating gelatin made from animals that did not have shechitah, or carmine color made by crushing cochineal beetles, but the world does not accept those rulings. Furthermore, what might be acceptable in one community (e.g., pas paltar, heter mechirah) might not be the expected standard in a different one.
Another element of halacha is to know how to apply it to contemporary situations. Which vegetables have insects in the United States in the 21st century? How do you kasher a hot-filled beverage line? How do you create bishul Yisroel in a steam boiler or induction cooktop? Which ingredients need hashgachah? None of the answers to these questions can be found in Shulchan Aruch, and the Rav HaMachshir must research and have hands-on experience to know how to implement the halachos properly. In this context, a Rav HaMachshir should have a strong peer network whom he can speak to about questions, and who share their knowledge with him, so he continues learning and stays up-to-date in his field.
The above all relates to having proper standards. But even with those in place, there are, unfortunately, too many times that a well-meaning and very knowledgeable Talmid Chochom became involves in hashgachos and quickly finds himself treading water or in over his head, certifying well beyond his competence level. Thus, the Rav HaMachshir needs (a) the right personality to serve in this role, (b) enough time and staff to oversee all of the accounts that he certifies, and (c) the ability to reject certifications which require skills that he is not competent in.
Most consumers are unable to personally evaluate which hashgachos meet these qualifications, and they, therefore, turn to their local Rabbonim or certifying agency for guidance. They trust these people to objectively evaluate which hashgachos are suitable for their constituents and advise them accordingly.
This article first appeared in the Let’s Talk Kashrus column, Yated Ne’eman, September 15, 2023.